ASO, pianist deliver fun concert

There was plenty of just plain fun at the Arkansas Symphony's Masterworks concert Saturday night at Little Rock's Robinson Center Performance Hall.

The performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" was probably the most fun. It calls for a brilliant soloist, and prize-winning pianist George Li (silver medalist at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition, no less) was certainly that and more.

Rachmaninoff contrived 24 variations on Niccolo Paganini's 24th Caprice for solo violin; for the lush, Romantic 18th variation, he varied the theme by turning it upside down.

Tempos were perfect through the mad dash through the final six variations, a big buildup to a flippant finale. The orchestra, as it almost always is, was excellent in support. Li rewarded the instant and extended ovation with just the right encore: Franz Liszt's "Paganini Etudes" (based on Paganini's "La Campanella").

Guest conductor Andrew Crust, assistant conductor of the Vancouver Symphony, in his callback "audition" for the orchestra's vacant music director position, picked two pieces by Black American composers to flesh out the program and mark Black History Month, both of them having Little Rock connections.

The first, the Arkansas premiere of Margaret Bonds' "Montgomery Variations," maintained the "variations" theme of the first half of the concert, a charming work but with some dramatic elements (Bonds was a disciple of Little Rock native Florence Price); after intermission, Crust led the orchestra in a marvelous performance of the Symphony No. 1 ("Afro-American Symphony") by one-time Little Rock resident William Grant Still.

Li, Crust and the orchestra will repeat the program at 3 p.m. today at Robinson, 426 W. Markham St. at Broadway. Ticket information is available by calling (501) 666-1761, Extension 1, or online at

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